Hilary Bok on free will

We come to the fourth of the six pieces in the recent batch in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Hilary Bok’s “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.”

Before we get to that, recall that I’ve confessed to compatibilist leanings – but on the other hand, I’ve also wondered whether “free will” might be a term that we ought to abandon. I don’t say the latter because I think any particular conception of free will is incoherent, but I do think that the term is vague (vagueness is a very different thing from incoherence) and potentially confusing or misleading. So this series of posts is not from somebody who especially wants to go around saying to people, “You have free will!” … or from somebody who is especially keen to defend others who talk like that. On the other hand, people who go around saying, “You do not have free will!” also run the risk of conveying something that is misleading (e.g. that we never act freely or that there is some truth in fatalism). The safest thing to do, arguably, is forget free will talk, and try to make more precise claims about what abilities we do and do not have.

But with all that said, I think there’s much to agree with in Bok’s essay. She is surely right that these questions cannot be settled merely by establishing that determinism rules at the level of the brain (I’ve been assuming throughout my posts that it does). Although this may not be fully established, I’m happy to assume that it’s true – I’m not opposed to the idea temperamentally, have no contrary philosophical commitments, and think that the science is suggesting that the brain probably does operate deterministically, with any indeterministic quantum effects washing out on its scale. Even if this last bit is wrong, I’ll assume it for the sake of argument, as it is invoked against some of the points I’ve been making lately.

Even if we assume that determinism rules (at the required level), Bok seems to be correct in saying the following:

With the exception of those who work within a religious tradition, philosophers tend to be naturalists who see individual mental events as identical with events in our brains. When we say that a person’s choice caused her action, we do not mean that she swooped in from outside nature and altered her destiny; we mean that an event in her brain caused her to act. On this view, the claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.

For compatibilists, therefore, the problem of free will is not that neuroscience reveals our choices as superfluous. It does not. Nor do compatibilists deny that our choices cause us to do things. The problem of free will for compatibilists is not to preserve a role for deliberation and choice in the face of explanations that threaten them with elimination; it is to explain how, once our minds and our choices have been thoroughly naturalized, we can provide an adequate account of human agency and freedom.

How can we reconcile the idea that our choices have scientific explanations with the idea that we are free? Determinism does not relieve us of the need to make decisions. And when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.

Quite so, and it won’t do to accuse compatibilists of being wrong because, supposedly, “free will” just means something like indeterminism at the level of the brain, or some mysterious ability of human beings to step out of what is otherwise a deterministic causal order. Most philosophers don’t mean anything like this when they talk about “free will”, and it’s far from clear that the folk do either – the evidence is ambiguous at best, and it by no means confirms that this is how free will is generally understood in the English language, as spoken by ordinary people (not philosophers or theologians). Someone who claims that we don’t have free will, while defining “free will” in such a manner, is merely knocking down a straw man.

If anything, Bok undersells the compatibilist case. She says:

… when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.

A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then, according to compatibilists, she is free.

Whether this view provides an adequate account of free will is not a problem neuroscience can solve. Neuroscience can explain what happens in our brains: how we perceive and think, how we weigh conflicting considerations and make choices, and so forth. But the question of whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will is not a scientific one, and we should not expect scientists to answer it.

Whatever their views on the compatibility of freedom and determinism, most philosophers agree that someone can be free only if she can make a reasoned choice among various alternatives, and act on her decision; in short, only if she has the capacity for self-government.

Perhaps, but an unnecessarily anti-Humean theory of motivation may be lurking in the background here (as may an unnecessarily restricted understanding of science). It’s not clear to me that compatibilists should require that we use reason in any strong way to choose among alternatives that are available to us. I don’t see the need, in all cases, to step back from our existing motivations and habits.

In many cases, surely, we can make a decision that the folk would count as “free” even if we don’t get much distance at all from our own psychologies. What if I calculate the expected results (weighted by probabilities) of alternatives available to me, perhaps working out how the alternatives will tend to advance or set back various conflicting values that I have – but I make no great attempt to work out what weights I put on these conflicting values? What if I merely let my unconscious mind weight them? What if I let it do even more?

Surely this sort of thing happens all the time, and there is nothing odd or worrying about it. I don’t see why this, without more, can’t be a situation where I act of my own free will, and perhaps with free will: if my choice to act in a certain way reflects my values, or desire-set, and if the action is efficacious to some extent, or is at least reasonably likely to be, that’s a long way toward saying that my choice was an example of free will, as understood in ordinary language. If we’re going to use free will talk at all, I don’t see why we should reserve it for situations where the agent gets involved in a whole lot of conscious reasoning or self-scrutiny. After all, we frequently use the phrase, “she acted of her own free will” in cases where nothing so high falutin’ is involved.

  1. “A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then, according to compatibilists, she is free.”

    But what determines if “she is capable of stepping back from her existing motivations” …?

  2. Stephen Lawrence

    “For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.”

    This is correct to a point.

    But what about the case of deliberating over what to believe?

    Most would say that we are not free to choose a different belief.

    Why? Because Free choice or Free will is not just about what we would do if we chose to, I would believe in scientology if I chose to.

    It’s also about the ability to choose to, which is the tricky part.

  3. swallerstein (amos)

    If at some time or in some way, I can step back from my unconscious habits and modify them, then it does not seem that the fact that most of the time unconscious habits govern my behavior changes things much.

    By the way, if anyone reading has ever successfully stopped smoking (as I did), doesn’t the ability to kick the smoking habit (or the cocaine habit, etc.) show that there is something that could be described as free will?

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    Here is a short essay to suggest that Free Will with Compatibilism is a realistic and viable moral method. It is not a synopsis of the problem, but tries to add a few new ideas for consideration.

    Free Will is associated with teleological ethics as opposed to deontological ethics. A deontological decision is monistic; that is, a decision is not unique and there is only one answer — the right answer. A Free Will decision is teleological; that is, it is an independent solution based on comparative consequences — a good answer.

    Free Will is a better explanation for inspiration than the Greek story of the Muses. As Hilary Bok mentioned “For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly (Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience).” Generating alternatives can be the fun part of making decisions. Architects, engineers, and designers call this brainstorming for new ideas. Too few alternatives considered may mean missing the best one, and too many alternatives become digressive, tedious, abstract and humorous. Brainstorming is a Free Will consideration, but determinism will narrow the list of possibilities.

    People have different methods for making evaluations. Here is a list of some possibilities:

    Theological Inspiration
    Imperatives
    Democracy and Poll Taking
    Utilitarian Happiness
    Tarot Cards
    Hero Worship
    Empathy
    Common Sense
    Game Theory, Randomness
    Freudian Ideals

    The above list is another opportunity for Free Will to raise its head. A person is free to choose which method of evaluation will guide their decisions, and can arrive at the same answer for different reasons. Free Will means that you can be wrong, but not that you can do wrong.

    There are three arguments considered here against the existence of Free Will. First, Free Will has often been associated with virtue ethics with the claim that “a person could have acted otherwise.” A number of writers and commentators have noticed the problem of applying Free Will to virtue ethics, and the paradox of mutual destruction between Free Will and Determinism. The main arguments for abandoning talk of Free Will revolve around the difficulties with virtue ethics (trying to decide whether to make the right decision for the wrong reason, or the wrong decision for the right reason). Perhaps there is some justification for abandoning in this particular instance. However, Free Will does not have to be limited to virtue ethics in decision theory. For example, Free Will can have a role in artistic creation.

    The second is that there is no satisfactory scientific test to demonstrate the existence of Free Will. At least, I am not satisfied with either the methodology or the results of the Libet tests or evolutionary arguments. The absence of scientific data creates an illusion that Free Will has no pragmatic value. Indeterminism can explain the simulation of random numbers; that is, randomness means too many variables exist in the universe for mathematicians to calculate. A computational proof of Free Will would only prove that mathematics could model its existence, but not that the model itself is real. However, the absence of scientific data may only mean that Free Will has not been properly defined; that is, the scientists are looking in the wrong place.

    Third, there is no agreement on the definition of Free Will since people would be free to define it. Uncertainty exists through much of the language of philosophy in that people rarely share identical definitions of anything. Thus, the absence of an agreed definition for Free Will does not mean that Free Will discussions should be abandoned. A compatibilist approach makes defining Free Will easier.

    The analogy of a cup can help show the compatibilist approach. Is a cup half-full or half-empty? Science can experiment on the full part including mass, colour, texture, acidity, etc. What can science test of the empty part? The empty part is defined by the absence of the full part. Likewise in the analogy, Free Will is defined by what determinism cannot explain.

    Some may claim they do not believe in Free Will, but they know all the tricks to take it away from animals and people. They know about moral responsibility, and law, and sanctimonious reason, and violence. When people cast their vote in the election for their favourite politician, it is an exercise in free will. When the electoral method is taken away, then there is the removal of choice and Free Will. It is to the advantage of the dictatorial to convince the people there is no Free Will. It could be argued that if Free Will cannot be scientifically verified, then it should at least be invented. This could explain how Free Will appears in the subconscious mind, and not as an overt realism. This also supplies another reasoning that talk of Free Will should continue. Life is more precious when we have choices. When there are no choices, life seems dull, terminal and pointless.

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